Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Odets's 'Awake and Sing!'

Dreams and disappointments, hopes and fears, encouraging words and bitter put-downs clash by day and night in Odets's turbulent comedy-drama about a Jewish family struggling to stay afloat in the 1930's. Conflict suffuses the stale air with a tension that almost seems to have mottled the walls. Dinner becomes a simmering battle between factions, in which grievances and recriminations are passed around the table along with the salt and pepper.
In the stirring revival that opened last night at the Belasco Theater, where "Awake and Sing!" was first produced in 1935 during the brief but influential heyday of the Group Theater, the tension derives above all from the question marks on the faces of the younger characters onstage.
Ralph Berger (Pablo Schreiber), toiling away at 22 as a clerk for a measly salary, comes closest to putting it in so many words, articulating a query that Odets posed in much of his work, occasionally with a defiantly American bluntness: What's life for, anyway?
The answers proposed and debated in this vigorous, still pungently funny play sometimes emit the hissing sound of old radio transmissions. "If this life leads to a revolution, it's a good life," avows Ralph's grandfather Jacob, a Marx-worshiping barber. "Otherwise it's for nothing." But even for Jacob life is also for listening to Caruso sing of a paradise that no social upheaval could really bring about.
Odets was writing at the height of the Depression, when economic disorder had led to a sudden, urgent questioning of some fundamental tenets of American society. "Awake and Sing!" and his other early plays are fired by a belief that art could play a role in transforming the culture, creating a world in which life wouldn't be "printed on dollar bills."
But his impassioned desire to proselytize for a better future didn't obscure his sensitivity to the everyday despair that tinted American lives long before the stock market crashed, or the humble forms of solace available even to a guy without a dollar to his name, like the rush of joy in his heart at the gleam in his girl's eye.

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